There continues to be an incredibly interesting conversation happening in the comment section of my last post. I want to highlight one aspect of it here. Commenter dmf has identified a tricky and complicated issue about the circumstances under which it is appropriate to feel grateful for having been given a decision. Dmf has also pointed out that this issue is tied to a similar concern that was raised before about ATS. The issues here are subtle and important. Let me see if I can say something about what’s going on.
As I understand it, the issue is something like this. It’s not always obvious that we should be grateful for being given some understanding of ourselves and the world. As dmf writes, “aren’t we often enough so converted to positions that turn out to be un-fortunate to some degree or another?” I agree that this is often enough the case. And it’s worse than that, too. That because, it’s not always clear until *after the fact* whether something that seems to demand your gratitude really is something you should be grateful for. This presents an apparent problem. For suppose that I am given a decision about what commitments to make, or how to understand myself, that turns out to be awful and worth repudiating. And suppose further that it is not clear to me until much later that the decision was repulsive in this way. Isn’t it just wrong to say, in these circumstances, that gratitude is appropriate?
Now, I think the two possibilities in question are both genuine and important. Not every understanding of myself is beneficial or good, in other words, and I might not know about a given understanding that it is un-fortunate in this way until after I have been committed by it. Interesting issues arise from this pair of observations. The issues are, I believe, close to what Bernard Williams once called cases of moral luck. In our instance, however, the phenomena take place in a domain that is a bit broader than that of morality proper. So, let’s start with Williams’ more restricted kind of case.
Remember how it works for Williams. He argues that it is not always clear whether we are culpable for our actions until their effects have been brought about. The drunk driver who kills someone, for instance, turns out to be more morally culpable than the one who – through nothing but sheer luck – doesn’t happen to encounter any other people to run over on his drive home. The first person kills someone through his irresponsibility while the second, though equally irresponsible, has the luck not to have been in circumstances that made it possible for him to kill someone. Even though the second person was equally irresponsible, the first is more culpable.
Now, it is certainly clear that there is a legal distinction here. The law treats the first person differently than the second. The first could easily be found guilty of manslaughter, while the second only of drunk driving. But Williams wants to argue that this legal distinction is tracking a distinction in our understanding of moral culpability as well. That means that whether we are morally culpable or not is determined, in part, by facts about the world instead of entirely by internal facts about ourselves and the decisions we make.
There are other examples, too. Here’s an example that’s clearly in the moral domain, but without a legal counterpart. Williams argues that the artist Gauguin turns out not to have been morally culpable for – indeed to have been morally justified in – leaving his family and moving to Tahiti. That’s because he turned out to make great contributions in the history of art because of this decision. But there was no way Gauguin could have foreseen this outcome when he made the decision to leave. In some sense, therefore, the goodness of his decision is determined by facts not available to him when he made it. Indeed, it is determined in the end by facts that are out of his control altogether. Whether Gauguin was to become a great artist or not was the result not only of his talent and ambition, but of the reception of his work and its place in the social history of art. As in the case of drunk driving, therefore, whether Gauguin’s decision was a good or bad one, whether he was doing a good or bad thing in making it, is in part determined by moral luck.
Now, we don’t have to agree with the particular interpretation of either of these cases that Williams gives to accept his basic claim: certain moral facts about us are not established until after the decision to perform the act in question. Indeed, they may not be established until the consequences of that decision – some of which we have no control over at all – are brought about in the world. Now, it’s worth noticing that in some sense, this is a particular instance of the existentialist idea that who you are is not determined except through the course of time – that for human beings their essence lies in existence. But it is a relatively limited version of this point – limited to the moral quality of certain of our acts. Still, if it is true – and I think that at least something in the area is true – this tells us something important about human temporality as well. It tells us that the moral significance of our actions can sometimes be established retroactively – that the temporality of significant human lives is not strictly linear like that of natural events. Now, what we have in the case of gratitude, I think, is something like an application of this aspect of human temporality. So, let’s try an example in this broader domain.
Suppose that I come at some point to have the experience of being given an understanding of myself as a white supremacist. We can agree, let us assume, that this is a nasty and reprehensible way to be – that it is, therefore, un-fortunate and to be repudiated. But let us suppose also that the repulsiveness of this way of being is not clear to me when the decision to be this way is given. What is the sense, then, in which it is appropriate, if it is, to be grateful for having been given such an understanding of myself and the world?
There are a few things to say about this example. First, let’s talk about the content of the decision. The natural and immediate thing to say is that it is not appropriate to be grateful for having been given this understanding of yourself. Insofar as the view is reprehensible, it is not a good thing to become associated with it, and therefore we should not be grateful for the development. But the connection is not so straightforward, I think. Consider the following.
Some Christians seem to believe that we have to get worse in order to become better. This is a constant strain in figures like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, for instance, and it is grounded in a certain reading of the New Testament. You might think, for example, that it was not an accident that the apostle Paul was a persecutor of the Christians before his conversion to Christianity. Indeed, on one reading of the story, he *had* to dive deeply into this sinful life in order to get the gestalt flip of the conversion experience. If we are to take this kind of trajectory seriously, therefore, it could turn out to have been a good thing to have been given, and to live out, the reprehensible, white-supremacist understanding of myself. It would turn out to have been a good thing just in case having understood myself in that way turns out to be a pre-requisite to my being flipped out of that understanding and into something genuinely good. In that case, I could be grateful for having been given such an understanding of myself.
Now, as it happens, I think that there really are cases in which a person’s existence has this kind of trajectory. I think it does sometimes happen, in other words, that by getting worse we get better. Grief is a good example. We only emerge from grief in a healthy way by facing up to and undergoing the pain and suffering of the loss of a loved one. The Christian view I am thinking about just makes this phenomenon much more pervasive. Still, it really is something that happens. In this way I think the Christians really have identified (or better yet, have made possible) a certain way to be. I do not think, however, that *only* by getting worse we get better. This is one of the many things that distinguishes my view from that of the Christians. I don’t think, in other words, that it is a *necessary* fact of human existence that we need to “awake in the middle of a dark wood” and go down to the bottom of hell before we are ready to climb the mountain of purgatory and be transported up to the realm of paradise. Still, I do agree that it is one of the ways human beings can be. And after all, how could I not agree with this? There is ample evidence from the history of Christianity and its various interpretations that some people really are this way. Furthermore, living at the far end of the history of this way of being, it seems to me that it is available as a way to be for many of us now as well – whether we are believing Christians or not. As a result, it could turn out, even about the *content* of my imagined white supremacist identity, that it would be appropriate for me to be grateful for having been given it. It would be appropriate, that is, just in case it turns out that it was a pre-requisite to my “salvation.”
This brings us to an interesting fact about the gratitude for given-ness that I have been talking about – what I will call its “disjunctivist” structure. To understand this, we must ask a question. Granted that it may become clear to me after the fact that my gratitude was appropriate. But how are we to understand my gratitude *at the moment* I come to have this (repulsive) understanding of myself? Let’s see.
Suppose that I have just been given the (repulsive) understanding of myself as a white supremacist. It grounds my commitments and allows me the resources for sticking to them. I go forth into my white supremacist world. And I feel grateful for having been given this understanding of myself. But is it real, genuine gratitude that I am experiencing? Well, as we have seen, that depends upon what possibilities it later makes possible. If it makes possible my turn away from such an understanding, if it is the darkness that I needed to descend into in order to see the light, then yes it was appropriate for me to be grateful for it at the time. True, my gratitude was in some sense or another wrongly understood – I thought I was being grateful for being a white supremacist when really I was being grateful for being a white-supremacist as a condition for later becoming something good. But it is nevertheless genuine gratitude that I am experiencing. On the other hand, if my current self-understanding doesn’t make possible that later transformation, if I stay in my identity as white supremacist and make repugnant contributions to the world on the basis of it for the rest of my life, then the opposite is true. My life will not have been a success, and my gratitude will have been blinkered. It will be the embodiment of a deep and abiding misunderstanding of what the world demands of me.
Philosophers might call this a “disjunctivist” account of the condition of gratitude because although, from within, the two cases look identical, these inner facts only establish that I am in one *or another* of the relevant conditions. They establish a disjunct – hence “disjunctivism.” In fact, the two conditions in question couldn’t be more different – one really is appropriate and genuine gratitude for a transition that is, as a contingent matter of fact, a pre-requisite for my salvation, while the other is only apparent gratitude for a transition that actually establishes the repulsiveness of my existence. The inner experience on its own, therefore, is disjunctive – it only indicates that it is one *or the other* of these states that I am in. The world has to continue – my existence needs to play itself out – in order for it to be determined which condition I was actually in. Once it is established, of course, it will retroactively always have been true that it was that way. Another version of the weird temporality of human existence.
In any case, this is all to say that I can imagine circumstances in which I could appropriately be grateful for being given an understanding of myself that is, as a matter of fact, repulsive. But the circumstances require that that understanding turn out to be a pre-requisite for a further transformation. In the bad case, when the circumstances do not turn out to have made this transition something worth being grateful for, I might feel exactly the same way – as if I am grateful for being given this experience of myself. But in fact, I am not grateful, since it makes no sense to be grateful that some unmitigatedly bad thing has happened to me.
So that is the first thing to talk about – gratitude for the particular content of what has been given. I might always *feel* grateful when that kind of clarity is given – indeed, it might be appropriate for me always to *feel* grateful in that kind of circumstance. But whether I actually *am* grateful is determined by how things end up turning out.
All that said, though, this is not the main thing that I am usually thinking about when I say that the experience of being given a decision demands gratitude. That brings us to the second thing I want to say about this kind of case. It is that the gratitude I am really aiming at here happens, so to speak, at a different level than the one we have been talking about so far. It is gratitude not for having been given this particular understanding of myself and the world, an understand with this content or another. It is, instead, gratitude for being the kind of being capable of being given an understanding of myself and the world at all. We could call it, I would like to call it, ontological gratitude.
Now, gratitude for being the kind of being I am, it seems to me, is appropriate if it turns out that we are right to prefer it to not being that way. If it is better to be open to being given an understanding of oneself than to be closed off to it, in other words, then evidence of our being this kind of openness at all demands our gratitude. The natural question, then, is this: Why should we prefer to be a standing openness than to be closed off to what is given? Or to ask the same question in other terms: Why should we be grateful for the kind of given-ness that this kind of openness allows?
These are complicated questions, and I cannot go into them in detail here. But I can make this observation. Lives of significance, it seems to me, depend upon our being open to what is given. Our lives do not come to have the meaning they do because we *decide* that is the meaning they will have. We are not capable of bringing about the significance of our lives through anything we manage to do or say. Or so I claim. Now, this is a controversial view. It is opposed by people as different from one another as John Rawls and Jean-Paul Sartre. It is one of the aims of my book to justify myself against figures like this, and I can’t really hope to do that here. Still, if what I am saying is true – if to be human at all requires being a standing openness to what is given – then to be closed off in the relevant way is for it not to be possible to live a human life at all. Now it is true, of course, that not every significant, human life – not every life that has some meaning or another to it – is a *good* life. But having no meaning at all in your life, it seems to me, is not to be living a human life in the first place.
Here is where I still maintain hope. We could call it ontological hope – hope about the kind of being we are. For I believe that it is still possible for us to live lives of meaning and worth, that it is possible for us, in other words, to bring about significant and meaningful changes in the world that speak to others and ourselves, changes that allow us to bring one another out better, to “accomplish” ourselves and the world. I don’t think there is a single notion of what is best or most fulfilling for us – I am a pretty radical pluralist in this regard. But I do believe that some ways of being are better than others, and some ways of being human are just awful. And I believe, therefore, that we can commit ourselves to making our lives and the lives of others better in myriad ways. It is possible for us to do this, in small things as well as in large, in community with others and in the stand we take on ourselves. But in each case, it happens only on the basis of our already having taken some understanding of ourselves and the world as given. The fact that this is possible, therefore, seems to me heartily worth celebrating.
The basic issue, therefore, is this. The world is capable of being significant, and therefore of being significantly better than it is, in part because of the kind of being we are. Because of this, the very fact of our being that kind of being, it seems to me, demands our gratitude. Without our kind of being, one of the founding conditions for significance would be absent. And significance is constitutively tied up with the possibility of significant improvement of some sort or another. It is because we stand as one of the constituting factors for this kind of condition, that we should be grateful whenever we are given some new understanding of ourselves and the world. Not because of the content of that understanding – which may turn out to be repulsive and may, in fact, turn out not to deserve our gratitude at all. But because of this higher level fact: its having been given to us establishes the possibility of significance and significant improvement. Because it re-affirms the fact that we can be involved in the betterment of the world.
That is ontological gratitude: gratitude for our being the being we are. And that kind of gratitude, I believe, really is demanded in every experience of being given a decision at all.